“Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent.”
— Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss

Now you see it

Graphic storytelling teaches better than text

The studies are in: If you want to communicate more clearly, use comics, cartoons, storyboards and other graphic storytelling approaches instead of or in addition to text.

Here’s a sampling of the research:

  • Parents answered 25% more questions correctly when they watched an animated cartoon explaining the need for polio vaccines than when they read a leaflet covering the same material. (M. Leiner, et al, in a 2004 study at Texas Tech University)
  • Students learned 51% more from cartoons with captions showing how lightning forms than from 600-word passages describing the process. The cartoons were also more effective at teaching the material than cartoons and passages combined. (Richard E. Mayer, et al, in a series of 1996 studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara)
  • Students scored almost twice as high at knowing the differences between confusing word pairs (accept vs. except, for instance) if they looked at cartoons illustrating the examples instead of written examples only. (L. Brent Igo, et al, in a 2004 study at a large Midwestern university)
  • Patients were 150% more likely to give correct responses when they received cartoons about wound care instead of text explaining the same information. (P.E. Austin, et al, in a 1995 study at the East Carolina University School of Medicine in Greenville, N.C.)
  • In fact, cartoons communicate better than other forms of illustration, including stick figures, representational illustrations, symbols or photographs. (J.M. Moll in a 1977 study by at the Sheffield Centre for Rheumatic Diseases in England)

Comics, cartoons, storyboards and other graphic storytelling devices also increase readership, improve retention and move readers to act. Tap the power of cartoons, comics and other graphic storytelling devices when you want to:

1. Tell a story.

Did something interesting happen? Tell your story in a comic strip.

Former Marvel Comics illustrator Bill Wylie recently transformed a hospital’s monthly “Safety Moment” story from 200 words and a picture of a guy standing next to an electrical socket into a comic strip, complete with a hero who saves the day.

SAFE BET Comics tell dramatic stories better than 200 words and a lame photo. Comic strip by Bill Wylie

2. Communicate complex concepts.

Want to help readers understand brain surgery or rocket science? Comic strips, cartoons and other graphic storytelling devices clarify complex concepts.

Southwest Airlines, for instance, uses cartoon characters to teach employees the business. In its campaign “Knowing the Score,” it breaks down the financials, shows what happens to its revenue pie and makes sure employees understand what the numbers mean.

IN THE KNOW Southwest Airlines uses cartoons to teach employees "the numbers."

3. Make history.

Celebrating a big anniversary? Want to share your organization’s story or contributions to the industry?

A graphic novel can help. Children’s education publisher Harcourt uses graphic novels to profile the Wright brothers and Amelia Earhart. Wylie also illustrated these true stories of trial, error and eventual triumph.

UP IN THE AIR Did something interesting happen? Why not tell it in a graphic novel? Wright brothers graphic novel by Bill Wylie

Comic strips, graphic novels and cartoons are also great ways to:

How can you use graphic storytelling to communicate your message?

Communicate With Comics.

Ready to try graphic storytelling for your communications?

I’ve recently teamed up with Bill Wylie, former Marvel Comics illustrator, to help organizations tell their stories and sell their messages through graphic storytelling. Let me know if we can help you get your message across with a:

  • Comic strip
  • Comic story
  • Comic book
  • Graphic novel
  • Cartoon
  • Caricature
  • Storyboard

Bill and I look forward to working with you to bring the power of words + pictures to your next campaign or communication.


Sources: M. Leiner, G. Handal, D. Williams, “Patient communication: a multi-disciplinary approach using animated cartoons” (PDF), Health Education Research, 2004, Vol. 19, pp. 591–595

Richard E. Mayer, William Bove, Alexandra Bryman, Rebecca Mars, and Lene Tapangco, “When Less is More: Meaningful Learning From Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lessons,” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 88, No. 1, 1996, pp. 64-73.

L. Brent Igo, Kenneth A. Kiewra and Roger Bruning, “Removing the Snare From the Pair: Using Pictures to Learn Confusing Word Pairs,” The Journal of Experimental Education, 2004, Vol. 72 (3), 165-178

P.E. Austin, R. Matlack, K.A. Dunn, C. Kosler, C.K. Brown, “Discharge instructions: do illustrations help our patients understand them?” Annals of Emergency Medicine 1995, Vol. 25, pp. 317–20

J.M. Moll, “Doctor–patient communication in rheumatology: studies of visual and verbal perception using educational booklets and other graphic material” (PDF), Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, 1986, Vol. 45, pp.198-209.

Peter S. Houts, Cecilia C. Doak, Leonard G. Doak, Matthew J. Loscalzo, “The Role of Pictures in Improving Health Communication: A Review of Research on Attention, Comprehension, Recall, and Adherence” (PDF), Patient Education and Counseling, Vol. 61, 2006, pp.173-190

J.E. Readance and D.W. Moore, “A meta-analytic review of the effect of adjunct pictures on reading comprehension,” Psychology in the Schools, 1981, Vol. 18, pp. 218–24

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“I recall a classic critique of a two-line poem: ‘It’s nice, though there are dull stretches.’”
— Alan Weiss, principle, Summit Consulting

Turn Strunk & White on their heads

Perform an act of commission

When I conduct writing workshops at Tellabs, I always learn as much as I teach.

TURN STRUNK & WHITE UPSIDE DOWN Instead of omitting needless words, try highlighting needed words.

One day, watching the Tellabs team edit a press release during a practice session, I was surprised to see George Stenitzer, vice president of Corporate Communications, wielding a highlighter instead of a pencil. Instead of cutting words, phrases and ideas he wanted to remove from the piece, George was highlighting information he wanted to keep.

Forget Strunk and White. Instead of omitting needless words, why not identify needed words?

Focus on what to keep. It’s a great technique, because it focuses you on finding what you need instead of what you want to scrap. Here’s why George does it:

  • “I use a highlighter to pluck a simple message from a sea of complexity.”
  • “When we edit a technical paper, a highlighter helps capture its essence and translate it from technical jargon into plain language.”
  • “Less is more. A highlighter is a quicker path to less.”

Give it a go. Having stolen George’s technique myself, I’ve come to believe that highlighting needed words is more effective than omitting needless words. It gets you there faster.

Cut Through the Clutter

Want to make every piece you write easier to read and understand?

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“We still see users struggle to hit tiny areas that are much smaller than their fingers. The fat-finger syndrome will be with us for years to come.”
— Jakob Nielsen, “king of usability”


Make story lists easy to use on the go

Jakob Nielsen recently redesigned a mobile website to make its story index more usable.

DROP/ADD On mobile indexes, if it will help the visitor decide whether to click, add it. If it won't help the visitor decide whether to click, cut it.

Now you can steal his approaches for your own mobile site:

1. Add essential information.

If it will help the visitor decide whether to click, add it. Nielsen added:

  • Full headlines. Don’t truncate them.
  • Decks, aka one-sentence summaries under the headlines. Decks help non-mobile visitors use story lists, too. So don’t drop the deck.
  • Photos instead of date icons. Who cares when the story was published? Besides, the photo gives information about the story that the date does not.
  • A label instead of a triangle to show the drop-down menu.

2. Drop non-essential information.

If it won’t help the visitor decide whether to click, cut it. Nielsen cut:

  • Bylines. Only the writer and the writer’s mother care who wrote it.
  • Publication dates. Nielsen used these only as dividers between stories published on a certain day. “The story date is not worth the substantial screen real estate it occupies,” Nielsen writes. “In general, it’s good to question any mobile design that repeats the same information multiple times; such redundancy is probably a poor use of highly limited screen space.”
  • Categories and tags. They were too small to hit reliably and didn’t add helpful information.
  • Triangle button to tap for a drop-down article summary. Why not just publish the summary?

3. Make important information more prominent.

What else can you do to help mobile visitors find the stories they want to read? Take a tip from Nielsen and:

  • Highlight key words in the headline.
  • Make touch points bigger. Make the entire story tile clickable instead of just the headline. That will help you solve the “fat finger” syndrome.
  • Show more story tiles without making visitors scroll.
  • Add more space between the navigation bar options so users are less likely to tap the wrong one.

These approaches are essential to helping visitors use your information through a mobile peephole. Many of them would also make a standard site more usable as well.

Reach readers online

Want to master the art of writing for the Web?

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“It’s too bad for us ‘literary’ enthusiasts, but it’s the truth nevertheless — pictures tell any story more effectively than words.”
— William Moulton Marston, creator of Wonder Woman

Cartoons communicate better than text

Increase understanding by 51%

Cartoons are worth at least 600 words, according to a series of studies by Richard E. Mayer, professor of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his team of researchers.

The researchers found that cartoons not only helped college students remember and understand complex physics lessons more than 600-word passages explaining those concepts. In most cases, the cartoons were more effective than the same cartoons with the 600-word passages.

1. Cartoons more memorable, understandable than text.

For the first study, Mayer’s team gave 56 college students:

  • Cartoons with captions showing how lightning forms
  • A 600-word passage describing how lightning forms
  • Both the cartoons and the 600-word passage

BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD These five cartoons helped college students learn better and remember longer than the same information in a 600-word passage or than the cartoon and passage combined.

Then the researchers asked the students to answer some questions about lightning. Some of the questions tested recall. Among them:

  • What causes lightning?
  • What does air temperature have to do with lightning?
  • Suppose you see clouds in the sky, but not lightning. Why not?

Other questions tested problem solving, including:

  • What could you do to decrease the intensity of a lighting storm?

Students who’d seen only the cartoons remembered 51 percent more than those who’d read the text only or looked at the cartoons and read the text:

  • Cartoon alone: 5.6 units recalled
  • Passage and cartoon: 3.7 units
  • Passage alone: 2.8
  • No instruction: .1

Students who’d seen the cartoons only were able to apply the material nearly as well as those who’d looked at the cartoons and read the text:

  • Passage and cartoon: 4.9 problems solved
  • Cartoon alone: 4.6
  • Passage alone: 2.3
  • No instruction: .3

2. Adding text to the cartoon made it harder to remember and apply.

For the third test, researchers gave students:

  • The cartoon alone
  • The cartoon with 50 words of text added to it
  • The cartoon with 550 words of text added to it

The more text was added to the cartoon, the less students remembered. They remembered the cartoon alone 126 percent better than the cartoon including 550 words:

  • Cartoon: 6.1 units recalled
  • Cartoon + 50 words: 5.2
  • Cartoon + 550 words: 2.7

The more text was added to the cartoon, the less effective students became at applying the information. They were half again as likely to be able to solve a problem if they saw the cartoon alone than if they saw the cartoon including 550 words:

  • Cartoon: 4.5 problems solved
  • Cartoon + 50 words: 3.4
  • Cartoon + 550 words: 3.0

Bottom line: Adding a cartoon — or telling your story with a cartoon only — can increase recall and understanding significantly. Piling on the words, however, yields a net loss in communications.


Source: Richard E. Mayer, William Bove, Alexandra Bryman, Rebecca Mars, and Lene Tapangco, “When Less is More: Meaningful Learning From Visual and Verbal Summaries of Science Textbook Lessons,” Journal of Educational Psychology, Vol. 88, No. 1, 1996, pp. 64-73.

Make it a picture

Want to deliver copy that gets read?

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“Working with Ann was eye-opening! I learned how to get organized, structure my work and make sure it connects with my audience. I’m looking forward to working with her again as I continue to practice.”
— Cara Crosetti, digital strategist, Spiffy Web

Make Ann your personal trainer

Pump up your writing with one-on-one coaching

Ever wish you had a writing coach — sort of a personal editorial trainer? In customized one-on-one consultations, I’ll help you jump-start your writing skills, recharge your batteries and get your creative juices flowing.

BRIGHT IDEA Jump-start your writing skills, recharge your batteries and get your creative juices flowing when you make Ann your personal writing coach.

We’ll work on your own copy — not made-up assignments with little relationship to your work. You’ll learn how to:

  •          Sell your ideas with reader-centric writing
  •          Organize your copy so it’s easier to read — and write
  •          Make your information more creative and compelling
  •          Measurably improve readability
  •          Lift your ideas off the page
  •          And more

Put yourself in good company

Communicators at such companies as Fleishman Hillard, H&R Block, John Deere, Nokia and VSP (Vision Service Plan) have already worked with me to polish their writing skills. If you’re ready to take this important step to improving your own work, contact me.

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Where in the world is Ann?

Cut your training costs when you piggyback your program

Save money when you piggyback your workshop by scheduling it when I’m already “in the neighborhood.” Book your program the day before or after another organization’s and split my airfare and ground transportation with the other group.

Ask about piggybacking on my upcoming engagements in:

  • Atlanta: Dec. 19
  • Bismark, N.D.: April 27
  • Boston: June 22, Aug. 7
  • Chicago: March 23
  • Danville, Pa.: Dec. 14
  • Houston: Dec. 7-8, March 8
  • Nashville, Tenn.: May 3
  • New York City: Nov. 4-9
  • Raleigh-Durham, N.C.: March 13
  • St. Louis, Mo.: Jan. 25

Save even more: Ask about my communication association discounts and second-day fee reductions.

Contact me to discuss piggybacking.

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